During the Ming Dynasty, the royal family directly controlled the government pottery kilns. As a result these had the best materials and the best craftsmen. Jingdezhen became the national porcelain centre.
The general characteristics of Ming porcelain are a fine-grained body, white colour tinted beige on the unglazed footring. Glazes are usually fairly thick and somewhat hazy with bubbles. They are often slightly uneven and have a bluish tinge. “Pinholes” in the glaze surface are common. Most Ming wares lack the precise finish of later periods.
The reigns of Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) are noted for the excellence of their blue and white wares. Lotus flowers amid scrollwork and aquatic birds were favourite subjects. The colour is a blackish-blue which is more thickly “heaped and piled” in some places.
By the reign of Chenghua (1465-1487), blue and white porcelain diminished and enamelled porcelain was being produced. The probable cause of this was difficulty in getting the cobalt blue pigment which was imported from the Arab countries. The most important innovation was the introduction of tou ts’ai or “contrasting colours”. This was a combination of underglaze blue with enamel colours painted on top of the glaze within the blue pattern.
The following reign of Hongzhi (1488-1505) saw the introduction of yellow ground porcelain which was reserved for imperial use and became known as “imperial yellow”.
During the reigns of Zhengde (1506-1521) and Jiajing (1522- 1566) there was a revival of blue and white porcelain. These blue and white wares were greyish and often pale.
The reign of Wanli (1573-1620) continued the styles of his predecessors but many more wares were made for export to the West. Until late in the fifteenth century, porcelain was exported mainly to India, Persia and Arabia.
Towards the end of the Ming period, a new kind of blue and white porcelain, with a creamy white body and sapphire-blue painting appeared. This is almost indistinguishable from the porcelain produced later in the Ch’ing Dynasty, except that the base is flat and unglazed.
In 1498, Portugal established regular trade with China. This export porcelain became known as Kraak from the Dutch word for the carricks from which it was pirated. The Portuguese traders were followed by the Dutch who gradually came to dominate the trade until they were displaced by the British in the nineteenth century.